SNP to focus on Brexit as indyref2 goes on back burner

Nicola Sturgeon is set to defy calls to abandon indyref2 and will try to push the issue into the background as she attempts the most delicate balancing act of her career.

Sturgeon vowed to reflect on referendum plans after the election. Picture: Stuart Nicol
Sturgeon vowed to reflect on referendum plans after the election. Picture: Stuart Nicol
Sturgeon vowed to reflect on referendum plans after the election. Picture: Stuart Nicol

This week the First Minister is expected to retreat from her original timetable for another vote but will keep the option on the table as she diverts her attention to Brexit.

By focusing her efforts on securing a soft Brexit, Sturgeon will attempt to defuse the referendum threat that proved so damaging to the SNP during the general election earlier this month.

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But her refusal to ditch the policy altogether will leave her vulnerable to Tory and Labour accusations that her party is obsessing with independence at the expense of health and education.

Sturgeon promised to reflect on her referendum plans in the aftermath of the election and is expected to announce the outcome of those reflections within days.

The SNP leader is under pressure to come up with a strategy which will reassure the electorate at large without alienating her hardline independence supporters, who have flocked to the party and make up her power base.

Senior SNP figures have warned against holding a second vote until it can be won, and Scotland on Sunday understands that view is shared by party donors.

Having lost 21 Westminster seats at the general election, there is an acknowledgement by the First Minister that her call for a referendum cost them votes.

There is also recognition amongst those close to her that it would be unwise to keep pressing for another vote given the economic challenges caused by Brexit.

SNP insiders yesterday said Sturgeon’s intention to have a referendum by spring 2019 would be allowed to slip while the Scottish Government exploits Theresa May’s lack of majority to influence the Brexit process.

“Using the really volatile situation at Westminster, the Scottish Government has to be seen to do everything it can to make Brexit as good an outcome as possible,” an SNP insider said.

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“In that sense it is prioritising the issue of Brexit and being seen to do everything possible to secure UK-wide or Scottish membership of the single market or customs union. We will then be in a position to judge if it is a good outcome. If it includes formal membership or de facto membership of the single market, and such a compromise was reached, there would be no basis to have another independence referendum at this stage.”

The UK government has so far refused to grant the Scottish Government the power to hold a second vote and looks set to push the issue until beyond the 2021 Scottish election.

The SNP’s new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said the immediate priority was trying to get Scottish Government representation at the Brexit talks to protect Scotland’s position in the single market and customs union.

“What I want to do is say to the UK government that you don’t have a majority for a hard Brexit, and say you have a duty to take into account the administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and hopefully Belfast as well and recognise there’s a situation whereby you have not pulled the country together and here is an opportunity to do that,” said Blackford.

“We can respect that the UK is coming out of the EU, but how do we respect Scotland’s interests? That has a high degree of significance in terms of where we are with an independence referendum.

“If we can protect Scotland’s position – that’s got to be the first priority. The second thing is making sure we get additional investment in infrastructure and our public services. Those are our first priorities and I would characterise it that way.”

On the second referendum, Blackford added: “It is there as a manifesto commitment. It has been endorsed by the parliament. But if you are serious about seeking to achieve compromise, you have got to make sure the first two things are your immediate priority: softer Brexit and an alternative to austerity.”

When she announces her next steps, Sturgeon is expected to refer back to the document the Scottish Government published at the end of last year which recommended ways that Scotland’s relationship with the EU could be protected after Brexit.

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Attempts to put indyref2 on the back burner risk a backlash from SNP activists, who are already having to come to terms with the UK government’s determination to block a vote.

Despite this, Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP and MSP who chaired the Yes Scotland campaign, remained convinced that a referendum would happen at some stage.

“Indyref2 is inevitable,” Canavan said. “It is only a matter of time, and that will depend very much on how the Brexit negotiations go. For many people, the full implications of Brexit have not yet sunk in. If it looks like we’re heading for a hard Brexit with detrimental effects on the economy, employment and freedom of movement, then that will increase the public demand for indyref2 to enable an independent Scotland to negotiate its own relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

“In the meantime, the people of Scotland are yet again saddled with a government we did not vote for and the prospect of more austerity. The chaos at Westminster raises questions not just about the stability of the UK government but also about the stability of the UK itself.

“Nicola Sturgeon will be astute enough to assess public opinion and seize the day.

“ I am confident that the people of Scotland will deliver a historic vote for independence.”